Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Book Review – Some Books on Writing

I've been reading a few books on the craft of writing recently. And if I've learnt one thing it is that mostly you're be better off spending the equivalent time reading and thinking about classic novels. Now don't get me wrong; most of these books contain reasonable advice. What they say is mostly true; and despite the claims on the cover to some unique insight they all contain pretty much the same advice; just each book gives it a minor twist in its presentation. However most this reading is a yawn; how come writing about writing is so boring? And mostly it somehow misses the point.

There seems to be a pattern to the kind of author who writes these books. (With only a few notable exceptions like Stephen King.) Obviously each author started out with a love of writing and wanting to earn their living from their craft. Each has achieved a modicum of success, enough to produce a CV that looks impressive, until you realise you've never heard of anything they've written. In order to expand their income they've taken to editing or acting as a writing consultant or taken on teaching. And then they spent most of their time running workshops on writing or trapped in some more or less formal classroom. From then on most of their time has been spent in such ancillary writing tasks. What has ground to a halt is their first love: any kind of original creative writing.

Can we learn anything from this kind of practitioner? Yes, most definitely. But we do have to be careful.

You see all those writers workshops, the time spent editing and teaching have led to a subtle shift in perspective. Now a block of text arrives on their desk and the days task is to knock it into some kind of shape. Often it seems, from the biographies of the authors discussed below, some film company rings up and wants an awkward script knocked into shape in double quick time. So out comes the writing checklist and the tick-boxes are filled in one by one. No doubt it produces results, else why would these film companies keep ringing? What has been lost is original writing.

Then this person decides to write their grand magnum opus writing textbook. This has resulted in some grand writing tomb and it has been the most successful, in a modest way, piece of writing they have ever achieved. No longer are they thinking like a writer; of creating something original. So the process they describe is not one of creativity; instead it is one of editing, they've reproduced their editing checklist. In and of itself it probably contains some good advice. What it misses is the creative process, of starting with a blank page, of finding that killer plot. The core of this persons living now comes from ancillary tasks to writing rather than writing itself.

What follows are a few brief comments on some of the books I have read recently. They are just random jottings rather then any attempt to be comprehensive or, indeed, fair. Nor are they in any particular order.

Jurgen Wolff's Your Writing Coach maintains a chatty style and contains many snippets of good advice – though, possibly, not as many as the egotistical author thinks it does. The book is better at getting you writing than in managing the structure of your writing.

Noah Lukeman's The Plot Thickens is largely a catalogue of lacklustre questions and, as such, makes for a somewhat boring read. The questions, especially intense in the first few chapters, are ones you should ask but none you could not devise for yourself, and none you could not more usefully tailor for your specific needs. Not recommended – except for the most obtuse of masochists.

John Truby's The Anatomy of Story is possibly the most insightful of the books discussed here. It does contain some useful discussion of what makes a great story. It's methodology is most helpful where you have an existing manuscript which contains a few specific and identifiable weaknesses. Then you can follow a particular chapter as a quick fix. However if you try following this methodology to generate a book the sequence of steps rapidly becomes unworkable. There is a lot of repetition of the same material, and if you change some details in subsequent steps, as always and necessarily happens, you need to go back and modify many previous steps. So rapidly does your work get out of sync that I cannot recommend this as a method of creating an original work. It would be nice if there was a streamlined version of this method that was a bit more practical.

Unlike the other books discussed here Thomas B. Sawyer's Fiction Writing Demystified makes no claim to be comprehensive; and it is all the better for avoiding this pretence. It contains many insights and is useful when used as a checklist for an existing manuscript.

I have saved my most important piece of advice until the end of this post. It's reserved for those who've waded through all the boring bits above.

Of course we need to learn the standard way of doing things; we need to extract the best from tutors, textbooks, and writers workshops and the like. However we should not accept all this blindly. We need to rebel, be iconoclastic and defy convention. Let's be clear about this; I'm not talking about finding some middle way, of finding a vague happy medium between conservatism and rebellion. There is no happy midpoint on a linear continuum that exemplifies your writing. Not at all.

What I'm talking about is doing two contradictory things at one and the same time. At the same time you're absorbing plot structure; beginnings, middles and ends; learning from the masters and also the dull, drab textbook; of becoming skilled in mundane convention. At that very same time, you're rebelling; chucking it all in the bin; finding your own way; disregarding convention; thinking things through anew and for yourself; developing your own, brand new, conventions. To use a philosophical term: it's about thinking dialectically; about developing dialectically. That the contradiction of the contradiction is so much more then the sum of its elements.

Part of this process is learning from the past. New scientific ideas build on the best of preceding ideas. They add too and enrich the conventional wisdom. But this process of enrichment can also lead to contradictions being discovered and the scientific edifice tumbling down. From which emerges a new, hopefully better, convention. This analogy is not perfect as there's no right or wrong with the arts; the arts do not need to conform with reality. Still it's suggestive that the rebellion process involves mastering convention.

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